During a pandemic year when the nation’s greatest challenge has been to avoid contact with others, perhaps the greatest irony occurred during a flood disaster in central Michigan, where an entire community experienced the biggest embrace possible.
Midland, Mich., was gearing up to host the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational during the week of July 13, but the LPGA Tour’s season had already faced numerous tournament delays and cancellations. Ultimately, COVID-19 concerns forced the Midland tournament to also put the brakes on its event in 2020.
“We decided with our client, Dow, that the reason our tournament had experienced such success was from all of the other aspects of it from a fan experience,” said Mark Baczewski, event director for Octagon’s tournament management team. “Given the restrictions and unknown circumstances with COVID-19 at the time, it didn’t make sense to hold the tournament if we didn’t have interaction with the fans.”
But about a week after that decision was made, the Great Lakes Bay Region community experienced another life-altering event that impacted several counties.
It started on May 19, when heavy rains pounded the region, dumping the contents of one lake into another when two rivers overflowed and eventually broke through the walls of two aging dams. Floodwaters swallowed 114 houses and damaged 4,000 homes in a path of destruction.
Bridges and roads washed out, homes disappeared in the floodwaters and cars and boats floated away. Of the homes that did not completely vanish in the flood, gallons of water rushed in, bringing along mud and debris and forcing residents to flee.
“The emotions of a major flood in the middle of pandemic took a toll on everyone in our community,” Baczewski said. “It was incredibly difficult for people to face the unknown as they evacuated their homes.”
Remarkably, there were no deaths in an event that left an estimated $150 million in residential damage and untold damage for businesses and infrastructure. The Detroit Free Press reported that rebuilding the compromised Edenville and Sanford dams will cost an estimated $300 million or more.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and SBA (Small Business Administration) have already invested over $65 million in individual assistance and low-interest personal and business loans regionally. That includes nearly $42 million for Midland County alone.
“Even FEMA has told us that our community and our region is doing something that nobody has ever done, and that is responding to a huge disaster during the middle of a pandemic,” added Holly Miller, president and CEO of United Way of Midland County. “I think this truly illustrates the fabric of our community with the volunteers who have leaned in to help, whether through formal or individual volunteerism.”
Miller said some 3,800 volunteers have invested more than 18,522 hours since the floodwaters impacted the Greater Midland community. In-kind donations totaling more than $1.52 million from 210 organizations have helped displaced families. At least 51 households have received help with restoration resulting from water damage.
Bre Sklar and her husband were like many Midland citizens receiving text alerts on their mobile phones, warning of the dam breach. Both military veterans, Sklar had a gut feeling this alert signaled tough times ahead for her home region.
“We knew immediately how catastrophic it was going to be, so we set up a Facebook page in our area [Mid-Michigan Dam Emergency Relief Support Group] to start making sure that everybody was getting out safely and that they were getting good information,” Sklar said. “Once the water receded, we got our own volunteer groups out there to help start demolition and muck-outs of affected homes. That was our key focus for the first 60 days.”
Sklar, who worked in a local bank’s wealth management department, organized a group of 30 citizens who donned work boots, work gloves and handled giant buckets and shovels to help haul debris out of residents’ flood-impacted homes.
“For the houses where the water was 4 feet deep, we would go in, rip out the walls, insulation, cabinetry and flooring where we could tell there was moisture to try to prevent mold from forming,” said Sklar, who served in the U.S. Army as a generator mechanic.
Church and civic groups, local veterans groups and labor unions, and countless citizens also offered help in the recovery and rebuilding efforts. Dow employees pitched in to help, as did the LPGA tournament’s Octagon event team.
“So many people wrapped their arms around this with neighbors helping neighbors,” said Sklar, who was hired two months ago as the flood recovery volunteer manager by United Way of Midland County. “It’s been pretty miraculous.”
Eight resource distribution centers were set up around the Great Lakes Bay Region to get much-needed supplies out to citizens. Dow turned its corporate aviation hangar at MBS International Airport into the primary hub to stage supply distribution to the other centers. Member of Team Dow connected with their network of global partners, suppliers and customers to source more donations and soon the hangar was filled with items to assist those who had lost everything in the flood.